The Chronicle of Higher Education

Affirmative Action Works -- but Judges and Policy Makers Need to Hear That Verdict


For close to two decades, a strange disjuncture has existed in academe: Many higher-education leaders have strongly embraced and defended affirmative action in admissions, yet, until recently, few have conducted research to justify its importance.

Fortunately, over the past few years, that has started to change. Academic researchers have now conducted several studies that provide credible and convincing evidence that affirmative action is beneficial to students, higher-education institutions, and society. As a result, policy makers and the general public can finally begin to make important decisions based not only on their own assumptions, but on sound empirical facts.

But will they? Or will we, as a country, continue to make unfounded judgments about affirmative action?

Twenty-one years ago, in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the U.S. Supreme Court sustained the use of affirmative action in admissions by a single vote and on a single ground: that a college or university had the right to admit students who could help create a more diverse student body. The court decided that doing so would provide a more stimulating educational environment for all students. Racial diversity was a legitimate and reasonable part of that goal, Justice Lewis Powell said in his written opinion. Although quotas were illegal, colleges and universities could consider race as a "plus factor" -- as they do regional origin, musical skills, and other non-academic forms of diversity.

With affirmative action hanging by a thread, one might have assumed that educators would look for solid evidence about the benefits of diversity. In the ensuing years, however, academic researchers conducted few studies on the benefits of diversity, devoting far more attention to examining the problems that minority students were experiencing on campuses that were racially diverse. To many researchers, the benefits of diversity seemed self-evident, so they focused on examining how best to encourage it.

Higher-education leaders finally woke up to the need for direct evidence of the impact of diversity in 1996, when a federal appeals court outlawed affirmative action in Texas, ruling that student diversity has no educational benefits. Since then, the anti-affirmative-action lawsuits and referenda proliferating throughout the country have roused educational leaders into clear awareness of the importance of research.

Today, the biggest concern among those who support affirmative action is that a new Supreme Court ruling could reverse the Bakke decision and drastically reduce diversity at our elite colleges, universities, and professional schools. Since Bakke, the Supreme Court has been silent in the area of affirmative action in higher education, although it has limited affirmative action in employment and contracting. But, everything may change in the not-too-distant future, as more cases emerge as strong candidates for appeals to the Supreme Court.

The University of Michigan has been the first major higher-education institution to respond to a lawsuit over its admissions policies with an outpouring of high-quality research on the impact of affirmative action. For example, Patricia Gurin, a professor of psychology, followed minority and majority students from when they entered the university to the end of their senior years to ascertain how affirmative action shaped their behaviors. She concluded that diversity fosters "active, conscious, effortful thinking ... the kind of thinking needed for learning in institutions of higher education."

William G. Bowen and Derek Bok's book, The Shape of the River, also has provided powerful longitudinal information about what happens after graduation to students who were admitted under affirmative-action policies. The study tracks how successful affirmative-action students have been on their campuses, in their professions, and in their communities. In addition, other researchers have evaluated the pros and cons of some alternative admissions processes, such as dropping standardized tests.

Still, we have seen little investigation into what is actually different about the process of teaching and learning in diverse settings -- and how students of all races at different higher-education institutions believe affirmative-action policies have affected them. That is, until now.

In response to the vacuum in solid, impartial evidence, the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University recently reported on a new study of the views of students at elite law schools on affirmative action and diversity. A central question is whether racial diversity enriches the educational experience of students. Therefore, our study, financed by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and another, anonymous, foundation and Harvard donor, explored the impact of diversity by asking students how affirmative action has influenced their educational experiences.

The study -- directed by Dean Whitla, director of the counseling and psychology program at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, and conducted by the Gallup Organization -- surveyed by phone some 1,800 students at two of the most selective law schools -- Harvard University and the University of Michigan. Previously, we had collected preliminary data by asking the same questions, through an Internet survey, of self-selected students at the law schools of the Universities of Chicago, Iowa, Minnesota, and Virginia, and Yale University. Since too few students replied to the Internet survey -- and we did not want self-selection to produce a bias in responses -- we asked Gallup to survey the much larger group of students at Harvard and Michigan.

We focused on law-school students because law schools were virtually all white before affirmative action, even though their graduates have always had to make and interpret laws and provide legal representation for the entire society. Also, the admissions battle is most intense at law schools, which are highly competitive and tend to rely more on standardized tests than do many other graduate programs. In addition, judges and lawyers tend to give special attention to law schools, because they attended those schools and can judge the issues based on their own experiences. Perhaps most important, three major law schools -- those at the University of Michigan, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Washington -- have faced or are now confronting lawsuits on their admissions policies.

We were pleasantly surprised by the high response rate: The Gallup survey -- containing more than 30 questions -- was quite extensive, yet more than 80 per cent of the law students at Harvard and Michigan took the time to respond.

We also were surprised by the striking similarities of the responses, especially given the inherent differences in the two institutions. Harvard is private, Eastern, and faces no legal challenge to its admissions policies. Michigan is public, Midwestern, and faces a lawsuit challenging its admissions practices. Yet, the responses of the students at Harvard and Michigan -- as well as of those at the five other law schools in the Internet survey -- were so alike that we think our results reflect the general experience of students at all selective law schools.

What did the students say?

The Gallup survey strongly suggests that the critics of affirmative action are wrong. We now have hard data that demonstrate that affirmative-action policies do indeed confer benefits on all students, members of majority and minority groups alike. Moreover, the results of our study show that those policies can also contribute significantly to the specific missions of various educational institutions -- in this case, law schools.

Although it is far from a panacea for the racial problems of higher education, affirmative action appears to provide powerful educational benefits. Nine out of 10 students reported that diversity had had a "positive" impact on their educational experience. Students said they believed that, in a racially diverse environment, they learned more in class as well as during informal discussions with other students outside of class -- that they gained a much broader perspective on a variety of educational and personal matters.

Students of all races said that attending law school with other students from a wide range of backgrounds had changed their views on important legal issues -- as well as their understanding of their profession and of the society in which it operates. Law students encounter many legal and social issues that tend to be perceived differently among the various racial groups in the nation. An overwhelming majority of students at both institutions who responded to the Gallup survey -- 78 per cent at Harvard and 84 per cent at Michigan -- indicated that discussions with students from other racial and ethnic backgrounds had a "significant" impact on their views on the criminal-justice system. Some white students wrote, for example, that it was impossible to understand the system without hearing the perspectives of minority classmates.

In addition, much of law and politics in the United States is about the conflict of rights: one person's right to safety versus another person's right to have a gun, or one person's right to attend a neighborhood school versus another person's right to attend a desegregated school. When we asked students how diversity influenced their understanding of such conflicts, more than three-fourths of the students reported that it had had an impact on their views.

Our research also suggests that it is a serious mistake to frame affirmative action as a cost to white students and a benefit to minority students. We were most surprised by the positive views that white students and Asian-American students -- the supposed victims of affirmation action -- held about diversity.

The white students we surveyed tended to have come to law school from a much more isolated and segregated background than did the minority students. In law school, the white students said, they were quite likely to form close interracial friendships that had important positive effects on their education.

In general, students of all races supported diversity in the student body. We asked the students to compare classes that were homogeneous with those that were diverse, looking at the range of discussion, the level of intellectual challenge, and the seriousness with which alternative views were considered. Among those who had had both types of classes, the students who said that diverse classes were superior outnumbered the students who found single-race classes to be superior, by more than 10 to 1.

In fact, many students said they wanted even more far-reaching affirmative-action efforts.

The message is clear: Affirmative action works. But will judges and other policy makers hear that verdict?

Whether or not the evidence from our study and other examinations of the effects of diversity in higher education will have the impact they should remains to be seen. The Law School Admission Council distributed the survey to all of the nation's law schools, and media attention has been widespread. Yet, it is still unclear whether the judges who must decide forthcoming cases, and the voters in states with referenda on affirmative action, will consider such results seriously as they make their decisions about affirmative action.

Researchers who venture into the policy arena always need to maintain modest expectations. We know that decision makers are often driven by ideology or politics, and ignore or misuse solid evidence.

In addition, one of the problems with research in an area as highly controversial as affirmative action is that many people assume that the results are simply statistically manipulated -- designed to reinforce the point of view of the organization or institution sponsoring the research. Since the release of the survey, I have received a number of letters and e-mail messages denouncing "Harvard liberals." I agree that, at its worst, research on politicized topics can produce leading questions and over-generalized interpretations, based on poorly designed surveys of inadequate sample populations.

Which is why -- although I am a supporter of civil rights -- I always tell civil-rights groups that researchers need to follow professional norms and develop the most objective findings possible, so that they can defend those results against charges of bias. In addition, negative as well as positive findings are important; we should not fight for a policy that does not work, and we need to know if any shortcomings exist, in order to overcome them. Releasing a report on a controversial issue, especially a study that is likely to be introduced in court, almost guarantees a searching cross-examination on the validity of the work. That's a strong incentive for strictly observing standards in the design and interpretation of the research.

Good policy needs good data. On a closely divided court, judges may very well seriously examine credible data from students and faculty members, even if they don't directly refer to the data in the text of a decision. In a similar fashion, solid research findings can influence voters, consciously or unconsciously, in a referendum.

Judges and voters should seriously consider our findings as they make their decisions. We now have strong evidence that very large majorities of students at some of the nation's most selective law schools are convinced that their understanding of vital professional issues has been deeply affected by diversity, and that diversity is an invaluable aspect of their education.

Still, in building a case for affirmative action, we must study other areas. For instance, colleges, universities, and professional schools should be gathering many more longitudinal data measuring their students' attitudes, experiences, and behaviors relating to affirmative action. Yet another urgent issue is the impact of affirmative action on white and Asian-American students. In addition, researchers should explore further how diversity affects faculty members. Professors can compare homogeneous and interracial classes, and explain how interacting with students and colleagues of other races informs their own understanding, their classroom discussions and curricula, and their research and writing.

In sum, researchers should make further contributions to the affirmative-action debate before the country makes a fateful choice about keeping open or shutting the doors of its elite universities, colleges, and professional schools to members of minority groups. If students and faculty members are given a chance to speak -- and if the policy makers are willing to listen -- we may discover that there is a good deal more hope for genuine interracial progress than we have any right to expect.

Gary Orfield is a professor of education and social policy, and co-director of the Civil Rights Project, at Harvard University.